Sermon preached by the Rev’d Fr. Donald L. Turner, Vicar, St. Peter’s-at-the-Light Episcopal Church, Barnegat Light, New Jersey, January 12, 2020 (Epiphany 1 [The Baptism of Our Lord] - Year A).
St. Matthew 3: 13-17
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
I can understand John’s reluctance to baptize Jesus, can’t you? Without meaning to sound presumptuous, I have been in John’s shoes — I guess I should say “sandals” - on one occasion, perhaps two, but I can’t really recall a second time. (You’re very curious, aren’t you? Let me hasten to explain.)
As most of you know, I grew up in a Baptist church, so when I was assigned by my seminary to serve as student pastor of the Pembroke Christian Church in tiny Pembroke, New York in Genesee County just outside Buffalo, it was not alien to me to baptize persons by total immersion. The Christian Church — their official denominational name being “Disciples of Christ” — practices the baptism of believers by immersion.
Of the moment to which I am referring I baptized a truly saintly young girl, a most exceptional, spiritual person for her age. I recalled at the moment the contrast between her unattached commitment to worldly concerns and my submersion in them. (If she had been Roman Catholic I believe that God would have called her to a religious order.) I could make excuses for my attachment — $52 a week gross income, young family, school expenses, having to drive to seminary four days a week, 100 miles ‘round trip in a gas guzzling Chrysler Windsor, the only salvation in this was that gasoline was just 19c a gallon! — we can all make excuses to justify some attachment to the things of this world. She had no reason to make that defense. She needed to baptize me.
So here is John, standing in the Jordan River and he sees Jesus coming to him down the embankment. Much to John’s astonishment he realizes that Jesus is not coming to have a chat while the two of them stand in the water, he is coming to be baptized! John protests, and understandably so. Speaking to John’s embarrassment Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” John’s baptism is a cleansing rite: repent, be baptized and you are cleansed from your sins. This is an adult rite, of course. So why does the sinless Messiah submit to this cleansing rite? “Fulfillment” and “righteousness.”
These two words, “fulfillment” and “righteousness” are important themes in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus allows himself to be baptized as an invitation for those who would follow him to receive a deeper righteousness. By allowing himself to be baptized by John Jesus “. . . fulfills the righteousness of the prophets before him through obedience to God — the same obedience that Jesus expected of his followers.” (Synthesis, January 12, 2020.)
When Jesus is brought up out of the water of baptism there is a voice from heaven, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove. God is speaking, and God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In the other accounts of Jesus’ baptism in Mark and Luke, the voice speaks just to Jesus, “You are my Son, my beloved.” There is this difference: the voice of God in St. Matthew’s Gospel is speaking to all who are present. “This is my Son, the Beloved.” So Jesus is being introduced to you and me.
In a related story, the story of the Transfiguration, the voice of God is heard again in similar fashion on the mountain top where Jesus, Peter, James, and John are gathered. In this spectacular event where Our Lord’s countenance is radically changed — a kind of prefigure to the Resurrection — God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Note the difference? The admonition, “Listen to him!”
On this Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord I want us to listen to him via the words of The Baptismal Covenant. We will be reciting this momentarily in place of the usual Nicene Creed. What occurs to me is that we can read through this Covenant with about as much attention as we give to The Lord’s Prayer, recited Sunday after Sunday. Saying the words, but not really letting them speak to us. If we really read and reflect upon them seriously I wonder if our better judgment would tell us to back off because we’re not really ready to affirm these things, not if we’re honest.
“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the bread of bread, and the prayers?” Meaning: we will study the scriptures, engage in fellowship with one another, partake of the food and drink of the Blessed Sacrament, and do the liturgy of The Book of Common Prayer, not just when we feel like it, but even more important, when we don’t feel like entering into the fellowship and worship of the community of faith.
“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”
Meaning: we will admit that we are beset by temptation — or are we too proud? — and when we discover that unwittingly or knowingly we have “sinned against God and our neighbor,” we sincerely confess our sins and seek the forgiveness and loving embrace of Jesus. Furthermore, with real intention to amend our lives.
“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”
Meaning: live like we belong to Jesus, be courageous enough to tell of his saving grace to others whenever occasion arises.
“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
Meaning: see Jesus in every face, and care for everyone else as you care for yourself, even abandoning our hatred of the enemy before the throne of grace.
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
Meaning: enter into the political arena and express your belief that everyone must be given the same opportunity as we, and judge no one by their color, gender, sexual orientation, political preferences, or religion.
I suppose it seems unreasonable to say that when I raised that young girl up out of the water of baptism I was challenged to a holiness that I knew was far from me. None of us deserves, on our own merits, to be initiated into the Body of Christ through Holy Baptism. As we respond to these questions in just a moment, let us remember that it is only by God’s grace we have been given the holiness to live a life worthy of his calling us.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Copies of Fr. Turner's sermons are always available each Sunday on the table in the rear of the Nave. He advises that you do not take a copy to follow him while he is preaching because he preaches from memory of the manuscript and often departs from the text, especially if he thinks of a good joke! Sermons are not lengthy. The Vicar had a Professor of Homiletics who told the class, "If you can't strike oil in ten minutes, quit boring!"